Knowing Noel was quite an Experience

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Noel Redding, the Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist who came to call West Cork his home, writes Noel Baker

OLIVE FINN thinks she may have an ally for her idea to pay tribute to her old friend Noel Redding. “I think there should be a statue of Noel up,” she says. “If Michael D was still Minister of Arts, I might get him on board for that.”

President Higgins was a visitor to Clonakilty just last weekend and it’s a safe bet that he’s heard of Noel Redding — a mercurial musician who played bass in one of the greatest bands of all time, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and who made Ardfield, near Clonakilty, his home in the early 1970s. In the words of his old friend Les Sampson, “Noel changed the way people think about Clonakilty forever”.

Redding and his partner, Carol Appleby, brought musical glamour to this corner of West Cork. He tried to dress like local farmers, played music in Clonakilty’s pubs, passed cards of condolence and celebration to the neighbours and generally lived his life. Dunowen in Ardfield was his home, a world removed from the hazy 1960s when he, alongside Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell, re-invented rock music.

Olive Finn, who grew up over Mick Finn’s pub in Clonakilty, is now 50 but was nine years of age when Noel Redding suddenly began appearing in her family’s pub and kitchen in the early 1970s. “Suddenly you’d come in and Noel would be there with Dave Clarke, Eric Bell and others, and they would just have impromptu sessions,” she says. “Can you imagine how exciting that was for a kid?”

Born in 1945 in Folkestone, Redding played guitar in a string of bands before switching to bass when he became the first member to join the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He played on seminal albums Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland, before leaving ahead of Woodstock.

Having already written his way into music history, he went looking for like-minded musicians and met drummer Les Sampson in Kent in 1968. “This Honda 50 turns up and on the back is a brightly coloured, huge haired freak,” remembers Sampson. He cut quite a dash in those days.”

Sampson was soon playing alongside Redding’s mates, including Jeff Beck and Cozy Powell, before embarking on an American tour. Sampson was even there for Redding’s first meeting with Carol Appleby, the first great love of his life.

Having left the Experience, Redding ended up becoming involved in a legal wrangle with the Hendrix Estate that was to last his entire life. He was paid a lump sum but spent years battling for a fairer slice.

His desire to escape the shadow cast by Hendrix was instrumental in his move to West Cork, according to Sampson. “Nobody would ever let him get out of that time period,” Sampson says. “It was always his big moan that he could not be anyone else, that he was Jimi Hendrix’s bass player.

“They just put a pin in a map of Europe and came up with Ireland. So I moved from LA to Rosscarbery. One minute I’m in Hollywood and 10 hours later I’m in Rosscarbery — it was like 1930s’ Cornwall, people on horses and carts, and very misty.”

Redding dived right into West Cork life. “They became immersed in Clonakilty and in Ardfield,” Finn says. “It’s a black and white picture and they brought this rainbow of colour into it.”

De Barra’s is now festooned with photographs showing Redding with various musical mates, from Bob Dylan to David Bowie, and his Fender bass is fixed to the wall near some of the gold discs he dedicated to the pub.

“Clonakilty is quite a cultural place,” says Sampson. “It had stuff going on before Noel arrived, but he just turned the lights on a bit, he made it a bit more technicolour. All of a sudden all these celebrities started arriving.”

As bassist in the Experience, one of Noel’s fortes was acting as timekeeper. He was somewhat similar in real life, Finn says.

“He was very OCD, but in a lovely way,” she laughs. “You knew where to find him at 4pm, you knew where he would be at half 4, you knew where he’d be at five to 6 — you could set your time to him.”

Finn says he was a fabulously inclusive musician — anyone could join him on stage, and his famous friends kept calling around: “I met Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and I didn’t know who she was,” Finn laughs.

On the couple’s Ardfield life, Finn says: “They lived on fresh air, they had no money, they were selling apples on the side of the road at one stage.”

Redding turned down lots of offers based on his Hendrix experiences, and then tragedy struck — Appleby was killed in a car crash outside Cork city in 1990. “It was such a tragedy,” Finn says. “When she died he started taking up the offers because he couldn’t bear to be in the house on his own.”

Redding’s mother, Margaret, had come to live with him and she died shortly before his own passing. By then he had found love again with Canadian artist Deborah McNaughton but aged just 57, he passed away after a period of failing health. According to Sampson, the Sixties finally caught up with him.

Finn recalls Redding being broken-hearted following his mother’s funeral, and that during the course of a spin in the car one day he spoke about death. “He said he wanted an Irish funeral,” she says, “and we gave him one.”

Finn says, as well as the statue, a suitable tribute would be for Redding’s house in Dunowen to become a school of music. His legacy lives on in his songs and also in the influence he had on other people’s lives.

“He just had a great outlook on life,” Sampson concludes about his old friend.


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